Sunday, October 2, 2016

Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas *****

Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas opens with
"On February 8, 1964, an eighty-year-old segregationist congressman named Howard Smith ... changed the lives of American working women forever."
His proposal was to add the word sex after religion in four places in the Civil Rights Act. Though he had been a supporter of the ERA (Equal Right Amendment), his intent wasn't clear. Some though his purpose was to torpedo the Civil Rights Act. Regardless, his proposal passed as did the Act.

Thomas's book traces how fifty years and ten Supreme Court cases, have changed the workplace for women. So much has changed, that today it is hard to imagine the workplace 40 or 50 years ago.

Employment ads differentiated between Wanted Men and Wanted Women. Sexual harassment was not even a concept. Cases that were decided in the Supreme Court included a company that refused female applicants with preschool children, and another that required women to be surgically sterilized if they wished to keep their job.

This book is a combination of a legal thriller and civil rights history. Well written and fun to read. Highly recommended to anyone interested in woman's rights in the workplace, both the history and the future.

The Act allowed discrimination if there was a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ). Much of the legal wrangling concerned companies not hiring women and suggesting there was a BFOQ. This included many well paid jobs with law enforcement, in prisons, requiring lifting, etc. Usually under the guise of protecting women, they were refused employment. The general rule became that women could not be refused because of an assumption about all women. If someone was refused, the employers had to show that that women cold not perform the job.

If a qualification such as height and weight (that tended to disqualify women disproportionately) was put forth, there had to be hard data supporting it. This ploy rarely stood up in court.

It seems like the only BFOQ left is roles for actors, and even that may be problematic today.

How hard was this battle and how much has changed?
After all [in the late 1980s], the [U.S. Court of Appeals] noted, "sexual jokes, sexual conversations and girlie magazines" were always going to be part of the American workplace, and [the Civil Rights Act] was not meant to change that.
The book delivered a very positive story of the past, but ends with a depressing epilogue about how much of a struggle remains.

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